Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 19, 2011
High by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by John Lasiter. Sound design & original compositions by Vincent Olivieri. Special makeup design by Joe Rossi. Cast: Kathleen Turner, with Stephen Kunken and Evan Jonigkeit.
Lombardo, who’s previously distinguished himself in New York with such genres as the one-woman show (Tea at Five, about Katharine Hepburn) and the might-as-well-be-a-one-woman show (Looped, last season, about Tallulah Bankhead), knows exactly which buttons to hit, when, and how often. Is sympathy called for right off the bat? Make one of the characters a nun, make another a priest. Want to establish the conflict in no time? Pit the pair against a gay, homeless, druggie of a teenager who apparently murdered a younger boy and who wants everything from what’s left of his life except rehabilitation. For a dose of humor, write the nun as the most foul-mouthed creature imaginable. Then turn the tables at just the right moment by revealing the nun’s own struggles with alcoholism and the priest’s craving for control. Throw in an attempted assault and lots of tough love, and dangle a happy ending just barely out of reach, and you have a show.
This kind of playmaking is utterly, gratingly predictable — and, indeed, there’s not a single surprising thing that happens over the course of the show’s two-hour running time. This would only be a problem if this kind of playmaking didn’t necessarily result in a sufficiently structured evening, but since it does, there’s no avoiding it: High works. Just well enough, mind you — but well enough nonetheless.
Two instances of powerful verisimilitude, on both sides of the footlights, don’t hurt. Lombardo’s inspiration for the play derived partially from his winning out (at least so far) against an addiction to crystal meth, and he’s applied that “insider” knowledge to create a richer, more believable texture. The young man, named Cody Randall and well played by Evan Jonigkeit, is at once emotionally tortured and unrepentant: He is being ripped apart by a horrific past (his mother was a prostitute who let boyfriends rape him in exchange for drugs, and when Cody got hooked on those he entered the business himself) and the knowledge that there’s ultimately no tomorrow for him. But without the belief that things can improve, the thing that’s most surely killing him is inertia. Lombardo has seen to it that Cody goes through nothing easy.
Casting Kathleen Turner as the nun, Sister Jamison Connelly, was the other brilliant stroke on the part of the producers and director Rob Ruggiero. No, you never remotely forget that you’re watching Turner — that voice, that bone-deep brashness, and that flawless (and variation-less) comic timing make it impossible. But Turner's public battles with alcohol infuse the character with an undeniable reality, so when Sister Jamison says, “Booze has a way of making things more bearable when you don’t have a home. Or if you’re really lucky? It can wipe a memory completely away,” it resonates with an eerie, effortless authority that unites actress and character onstage as well as in your mind. That she’s as imposing physically as she is vocally also sets up a nice contrast: If a woman this sturdy can be conquered by booze, no one is safe from anything. Yet another variation of Lombardo’s message.
Performers and play alike would benefit from a more consistent production. There are several “worlds” Sister Jamison occupies within the play — with Cody, with Father Michael, outside the hospital’s walls, and within her own memory — and none jibes with the others. The point seems to be that the pull of alcohol has so disengaged Sister Jamison from the world that she can no longer keep its pieces assembled; David Gallo’s set, which consists of several detached walls that constantly emerge from and dissolve into a stage-spanning, star-pocked cyclorama, suggests this. But Ruggiero’s failure to unite the elements makes the pacing more ragged than is ideal.
Again, however, it doesn’t matter much: What Lombardo has written is too formulaic and too firm to falter as a result of the weakness of any individual component. It moves despite itself, it soars as a testament to hope and belief even though it preaches nothing new. Just as Sister Jamison, Father Michael, and Cody are all in search of transcendence while mired in the mud of earthly concerns, so too does this play reach well beyond what it should be able to grasp. Its success, however tenuous, is the playwright’s declaration that anything can happen if powered by enough faith and the devotion to doing the right thing even when it feels most wrong. A difficult, inscrutable lesson? Maybe. But with High, Lombardo reminds us that there’s no other kind worth learning.